In a tribute to his renowned grandfather, a Cousteau plans to launch the longest mission ever undertaken aboard the Aquarius, the undersea habitat at the Florida Keys reef.
Mission 31, a saturation-diving mission planned to begin Oct. 1, would last 31 days. Researchers will seek evidence of climate change in examining corals and sponges, and the team will test new underwater equipment.
"This 'inner-space' station is the only undersea marine habitat and lab in the world," Fabien Cousteau said in a June 11 statement. "As previous missions have lasted a maximum of 18 days, this will be the first time Aquarius has hosted a mission of this length."
The 31 days would be one day longer than the Conshelf II mission in 1963 that his grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, planned and undertook in a Red Sea habitat. The Academy Award-winning documentary, "World Without Sun," depicts life in the sea as seen from Conshelf II.
"Not only will our endeavor break new ground in ocean exploration, but it also coincides with the 50th anniversary of a monumental legacy left by my grandfather," Fabien said.
The Aquarius Reef Base, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now under operation by Florida International University staff, lies in 63 feet of water at Conch Reef off Islamorada.
"We at FIU are enthusiastic about Mission 31 and expanding the education and outreach role of the Aquarius Reef Base through this novel and entrepreneurial mission," said James Fourqurean, an FIU professor of biological sciences who oversees Aquarius operations.
"We look forward to working with Fabien Cousteau and his corporate, private and academic partners to make sure that the mission reaches its lofty aspirations and advances the goals of both NOAA and FIU," Fourqurean said by e-mail.
Fabien Cousteau, 45, is the son of frequent Keys visitor Jean-Michel Cousteau. He accompanied his grandfather and father on expeditions aboard the iconic Calypso research vessel, and down the Amazon River.
During Mission 31, Cousteau plans to include extensive contacts with schools so students can "experience the excitement of discovery, exploration and scientific endeavors again."
No missions have taken place aboard Aquarius since last July. Federal budget cuts eliminated research grants that supported Aquarius, and operations directed by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington ended.
The future of Aquarius was highly uncertain until FIU reached agreement to maintain the 43-foot-long metal structure that sleeps six aquanauts (typically four divers and two staff technicians). NOAA last week confirmed that it would provide funding to FIU for facility maintenance through the end of the year. Mission costs are not covered.
Cousteau continues to raise money for Mission 31 but has attracted scientific support from Northeastern University and the Divers Alert Network, which will focus on physiological and psychological aspects of the extended mission.
Sylvia Earle, the ocean pioneer who has been aboard three Aquarius missions, and fellow members of the OceanElders organization, including Richard Branson and singer Neil Young, are lending support to the project. The Weather Channel is involved, and shooting for an IMAX film is planned.
"We are confident enough that we have blocked out the time on the schedule for this mission," Fourqurean said.
Missions aboard Aquarius typically last 10 to 14 days, and allow divers to spend about six hours a day working in the 60-feet depths and deeper. It has been located at Conch Reef for 21 years.
FIU staff is planning its own science and education mission this summer but has not finalized dates. Other groups have been in contact about Aquarius missions, Fourqurean said. "We are counting on a very busy summer at Conch Reef," he said.